From Texas to New Jersey to the United Kingdom, this week has seen a host of troubling developments threatening both the right of the web to stay open, and the right of its users to remain private.
From Lavabit, With Takedowns
The web lost a valiant email host today in Lavabit, whose Owner and Operator, Ladar Levison, shut down the site in the face of unspecified United States governmental pressure. Lavabit was known a privacy-focused mid-sized email client serving 350,000 customers, most famous of whom is Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who remains in Russia on temporary asylum. Levison chronicles his decision, writing,
After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this…
This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.
Reading between the lines, it seems rather obvious that Lavabit has been ordered to either disclose private information or grant access to its secure email accounts, and the company is taking a stand and shutting down the service while continuing the legal fight. It’s also clear that the court has a gag order on Levison, limiting what can be said.
Servers on Trial in New Jersey
The internet has facilitated prostitution about as long as it’s facilitated flamewars about Star Trek — which is to say, since pretty much forever (aka. 1994). Meddling governments have since attempted to curtail such interactions (particularly the former), seeking to criminalize not only the trafficking of sex workers, but the very hosts and sites where such conduct might be initiated.
Tomorrow, the EFF will take the stand in New Jersey on behalf of the Internet Archive, joining the law firm representing local classifieds site Backpage. At issue is a New Jersey statute that “attempts to impose criminal penalties on not only sex traffickers who post online prostitution advertisements but also on service providers who carry or disseminate such advertisements.”
Such restrictions conflict with section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. CDA 230 bars enforcement of state criminal laws that attempt to place criminal blame on providers for illegal user-generated content. Courts in Washington and Tennessee have already struck down similar statutes on CDA 230 protections, but a larger battle appears to be brewing.
On July 24, forty-nine state and territory attorneys general asked Congress to repeal CDA 230, a move that would leave internet regulation in the hands of state and local law enforcement officials, forcing service providers into self-policing entities legally liable for the actions of their users.
Tea and Scones, Dryly Unaccompanied by Double Penetration
From the hallowed halls of David Cameron’s United Kingdom government emerges a massively restrictive new set of regulations dubbed the “War on Porn.” The laws would implement a “default-on” provision that restricts British internet users from accessing porn unless opting into a government-run list indicating that, yes, in fact, they would rather enjoy a bit of nasty after all.
In addition to restricting porn from people’s homes, the War would impose blanket restrictions on public WiFi and mobile networks, preventing salacious content from lighting up the glowing rectangular devices of any any user deemed a minor.
If taken to full effect, the War on Porn could have drastic and massive unintended consequences, from teenagers unable to find resources on safe sex and homosexuality, to women unable to find information about breast cancer.
Any default-on system needs to be simple enough for a stupid adult to navigate, and, if it is, any web-savvy kid should find their way around it in no time. To work, the filters would need to prevent users from asking search engines “How do I turn off these porn filters?” And then the question “How do I turn off the filters for questions about turning off filters?” And so on, for ever.
Not to mention, one ought to consider the potential embarrassment triggered by the opt-out box in light of the particular British temperament: “The fact is, people like pornography,” said Alan Thomson, a London website designer, speaking in a comment via TheDailyBeast. “Forcing people to explain to their mother, wife, or roommate why they want the porn filter off is hardly going to be a vote winner.”